Put aside all of the fluff and frivolity, and shelve 90 per cent of those things you’ve convinced yourself that you ‘need’ for just a moment. If you want to buy the most pragmatic 4x4 ute, you would end up with something like this: a 2020 Isuzu D-Max 4x4 SX.
It’s the cheapest entry point into an Isuzu 4x4 ute with four doors and a tub on the back, with a currently advertised starting price of $39,990 drive-away. That’s for a six-speed manual, by the way. $42,190 is the current listed price for what we have here: a D-Max Crew Cab with a six-speed automatic gearbox. That’s $15,000 less than the $54,990 asking price currently attached to a D-Max X-Runner, the limited-edition range-topper.
And when you’re talking basic, this D-Max really nails the brief. But, it’s not a unique proposition. A scan of drive-away deals on competitive manufacturer websites yielded these prices for base-specification, automatic, 4x4 dual-cab utes. The Triton GLX is certainly the sharpest at $37,240, followed by the Mazda BT-50 XT ($38,990) and Nissan Navara SL ($40,490). That’s for the 140kW engine, mind you. Logic dictates that you could get a 120kW RX for a little cheaper, though it's not a part of the current offer campaign.
Next up is Volkswagen’s Amarok 4x4 Core 2.0-litre at $41,990, more expensive is Toyota’s HiLux, with the 2.4-litre WorkMate costing $44,990. Go up to the 2.8-litre SR and spend $47,990. Deals described here are current drive-away offers, and may changed based on location and timing.
Holden lists the Holden’s Colorado LS ay $40,990 but with the brand in the stages of closing in Australia there's no fixed drive-away offers, but deals are being done... Negotiate hard. The most expensive base-specification ute is Ford’s Ranger XL at $52,445 for the 2.2-litre diesel or $52,760 for the 3.2-litre, though if you're quick some $46,490 XLS 3.2L stock remains as part of Ford's 2019 plate clearance.
Only one choice for that under-bonnet accommodation in a D-Max, however: the 3.0-litre ‘4JJ1’ turbo diesel lives on. It has the same power outputs of 130kW at 3600rpm and 430Nm at 2000–2200rpm, regardless of whether you opt for a six-speed automatic or manual.
These numbers peg the D-Max right at the bottom of the spec-sheet braggery pile, even though it’s amongst the highest in terms of displacement. If you want the latest and greatest in terms of power and refinement, you’re best served elsewhere. This engine, running concurrently in Isuzu N-Series light trucks with 4500kg GVM (gross vehicle mass) and 8000kg GCM (gross combination mass), isn't exactly a smooth, high-revving Arabian.
The engine is more of a draught horse: churning along at around 2000rpm is its happy place. It’s gruff, but refined enough for day-to-day usage. It feels flexible, as well: beyond that peak torque number, 380Nm is available between 1700 and 3500rpm, practically the entire useable rev range. When towing or laden, this D-Max driveline never really gets flustered.
Part of that equation is the six-speed automatic gearbox, which is a smooth and deliberate shifter. It’s certainly not a quick thinker, but seems to hold ratios at the right time to get the best out of the engine.
The driveline proves to be efficient, as well. The official combined fuel economy number is 7.9L/100km, which is good considering this engine is big and has been around the block for a while now. In our testing, we managed to keep it below 9.0L/100km, but that included plenty of efficient highway driving.
Servicing costs are managed by a seven-year capped-price schedule, with the first five services costing $369, $479, $529, $499 and $379. With intervals every 12 months or 15,000km, that takes you out to 75,000km. Watch out for the sixth service, as it’s slated at $1179 while the seventh is a more manageable $409.
What’s relatively new for the D-Max is the three-leaf spring pack in the rear end, which is a little more soft and compliant than the old five-leaf pack. It’s an improvement, and the D-Max is still able to utilise most of its near-tonne payload. Check out this review for more information in that regard.
Suspension damping still feels firm, which is what you need when you’re loaded up. Unladen, it’s a stiff and jiggly ride over bumps and imperfections; something synonymous with almost every other ute out there.
Steering is also an old-school affair: a little slow and heavy compared to modern standards. It works well off-road, however, and doesn't get overly affected by big loads.
You’d want to be into black vinyl and rubber as much as the gimp from Pulp Fiction to really appreciate this D-Max's interior, or maybe just a 4WD enthusiast. Because it’s very, very basic. Aside from the foot wells, it’s an endless sea of hard plastic without anything soft or tactile in sight.
Thick vinyl matting speaks to your inner bricklayer; a tough, no-nonsense solution that fills the brief and doesn’t give two hoots about fashion, feelings or sensibilities. And when those thick rubber mats get dirty, you can simply pull ’em out and hose ’em off. Try doing that with posh carpet.
If I were putting money down on a 4WD ute that I knew for a fact would be attacked with muddy boots, heavy gear and sharp bits, this is the kind of thing I want. There literally isn’t any surface on the interior I can find that wouldn’t wipe clean or take a hit like Buster Douglas.
Mechanical air-conditioning controls are rudimentary, but they work well enough. And kiss goodbye any idea of smartphone connectivity – aside from Bluetooth, the D-Max SX has an infotainment display so lacking in any real features, Fred Flintstone’s brows would furrow. It gives you a display for the reversing camera, at least, but the audio system is noticeably lacking volume grunt.
Interior practicalities are solid. I like the slide-out cupholders under the air-conditioning vents, which can help keep your drink cool and take the total count of cupholders up front to four. There are two well-sized and handy storage nooks, and the cheap-feeling centre console is also of decent size.
The single USB plug up front is underpowered, and not strong enough to charge my average-sized smartphone. So, you’ll need a USB adaptor for the solitary 12V plug.
The second row is basic, with only some fold-out cupholders in terms of features. No 12V, no USB and no air vents. The seat bases do flip up, which reveals some small storage in the floorpan, along with freeing up some additional storage space.
I’m drawn to compare this poverty-pack D-Max against its more equipped and expensive stablemates. High-specification models get leather trimming and electric adjustment, but the seats are the same basic unit: decent ergonomics, but a noticeably flat base with a lack of under-thigh support.
Other than a handful of pleather coverings around the centre console bin, doors and dashboard, the only big differences in higher-specification models are the infotainment system and single-zone climate control set-up. But let’s be honest, neither of those is anything to write home about.
So, in a pragmatic way, that comparison leaves this D-Max stacking up as a good value choice.
Off-road performance is solid, and helped by the softer rear end when going through cross-axle situations. Bridgestone Dueler A/T 693 all-terrain rubber (different to the more aftermarket-focussed 697s) in a passenger construction and 245/70R16 size certainly benefits the ride, and also performs reasonably well off the beaten track. It’s a 29.5-inch tyre on a basic steel wheel, but both are ripe for improvement.
There’s no form of locking differential in this (or any) D-Max. When combined with an underwhelming traction-control system, it means the D-Max doesn't handle cross-axles as well as other 4x4 utes out there. Only some poverty-pack 4x4 utes have a rear locker as standard, but most have an off-road traction-control system better than Isuzu’s.
Ground clearance and protection are decent, which makes the base-spec D-Max a good base for building it up into a competent off-roader.
For me, this lowly SX is the pick of the D-Max range. Its unpretentious, stripped-out and cut-priced nature plays to the strengths of the marque, instead of trying to compete against more modern and tech-laden competitors like, well, any other ute on the market.
This will all change next year, when Isuzu’s new generation D-Max lands in Australia with an interior and spec sheet that seem much more modern. However, that will likely also come with a price rise.
Let’s be honest: the $15,000 worth of savings over a top-spec Isuzu (or other brand) buys you a lot of nice aftermarket gear – locking diffs, suspension, tyres and protection. Hell, you could probably squeeze in some better infotainment as well. That is the strength of this D-Max, and why it’s worthy of consideration.
The D-Max is covered by a six-year, 150,000km warranty. It’s a solid offering, and bested only by Mitsubishi and Ssangyong in terms of the time limit. Although, most other utes with a five-year warranty offer unlimited kilometres.
The light-truck lineage says a lot about where the D-Max sits in the current landscape of 4x4 utes. It’s the least car-like of the bunch, but that’s because it’s made by a company that (aside from a glittering history of sports cars in its distant past) only makes diesel engines and commercial trucks.
The interesting thing about the D-Max is that it continues to compete well in a tough and competitive segment, and often outselling other brands that are better in many easily quantifiable aspects. Aside from being behind the pace in terms of refinement, interior and tech, the D-Max’s truck-like nature is a difficult thing to quantify. But at the same time, it’s something that many Australian buyers value.